You're Getting Sleepy

Modern Painters
October 1, 2009

You’re Getting Sleepy ...

By Sarah Douglas

Published: October 1, 2009

Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, Rasmus Nielsen, and Jakob Fenger — the three Danish artists collectively known as Superflex — have used some unusual materials in making artworks that often double as political activism. They’ve set a car on fire; enlisted the employees of a New Zealand bank to desist in using the word "dollars" for an entire day; and re-created the interior of a typical McDonald’s restaurant, just to videotape it being flooded. This month, if you tune in to the UK Channel 4 just before eight o’clock on October 12 through 15, you can watch Superflex take on the global economic crisis, as part of this year’s edition of Frieze Film, a Frieze Art Fair-curated program overseen by Neville Wakefield. Unorthodox as they invariably are, Superflex’s artworks have a tendency to go through eleventh-hour alterations, and when Sarah Douglas spoke with Rasmus Nielsen in July, the trio hadn’t yet started filming. But, as Nielsen described it, plans had been laid for a most mesmerizing project.

For this film, is it true that you originally intended to put George Soros under hypnosis in order to throw some light on the economic meltdown?

Yes. We wanted to explore the psychological levels of the crisis through the eyes of a specific person. Soros has this almost prophetic status in terms of what happened with the global economy. But it wasn’t possible to work with him.

So you changed the project?

We decided to turn the focus around and work with our viewers. These segments get about a million viewers. It’s not Soros, but it might be even better.

How will that work?

We are working with hypnotists. The idea is to treat the economic crisis as a neurosis that will be treated with a kind of therapy where elements of hypnosis are used.

Hypnotherapy is generally used for things like quitting smoking, right?

Or weight loss. That’s the cheesy version. I’ve never heard of it being used for financial anxieties related to the economic crisis.

These segments air over four nights. How will you use that time?

It will be like going to a therapist four times. When the spots air, the viewer will go through different phases of financial neurosis and experience fears and anxieties. We’ll use elements of hypnotherapy, but go in a more narrative direction, talking the viewer through scenarios, like "your credit cards no longer work" or "money has lost its value" or "people have started heating their houses by burning money." And talk about all the things that could happen in those scenarios. It will be very descriptive: close your eyes, now you see this, now you see that. But there are regulations about the level of hypnosis you can use on television. You can’t hypnotize a million people in prime time. It’s not legal.

What do the regulations specify?

In some of them it says that hypnotists can’t look directly into the camera. But if you’ve ever seen the Disney version of Robin Hood, or The Jungle Book, there is hypnosis. There isn’t a complete ban on it. I was surprised to see the regulation.

Why?

Because hypnosis is exactly what TV tries to do, especially during commercial breaks.

Good point. I’m thinking of the reprogramming sequence in A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Yes. And in the US, you can buy all these home hypnosis kits. You buy a couple of DVDs, play them on your TV, and lose weight.

Are you interested in the ways in which crises are discussed, for instance, by the media?

There are two major crisis conversations going on at the moment. One is about climate change and the other is financial. And they both have apocalyptic language surrounding them. If you read old religious texts or listen to doomsday prophets from the American Midwest, it’s the same language that scientists and newscasters are using today. We have ongoing apocalypses all around us. It’s become part of daily life. It’s so normal that we barely notice it anymore.

So that is where your inspiration for this film comes from?

Yes — from this daily apocalyptic delivery of information. We want to use hypnosis to try to speak about it in a different way.

I understand you were also inspired by Lars von Trier’s 1987 film Epidemic, specifically the part where two screenwriters bring a plague from the Middle Ages to the present when they have a woman hypnotized. That’s so dark!

It’s a gag that gets out of hand and becomes reality. Yeah, it’s dark.

Your film of a slowly flooding McDonald’s restaurant, shown earlier this year at the South London Gallery, depicted an apocalyptic scenario that could result from global warming.

The Big Mac apocalypse.

That seems frightening.

Yes, but it’s done in a gentle way. The water rises very slowly, there are no people in there, and there is no dramatic music playing. It’s a very subtle end. In the von Trier movie, things go completely berserk, but when I imagine how the world will end, I think it will be a gentle end. It will more be like it is right now. A smooth end. Not a big bang.

Like in T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men (1925): "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper."

I would go for that version.

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